11 reasons to visit Japan in the winter

In the autumn there are the turning leaves, in the summer there’s hot sun and lush green landscapes, and in the spring there is (of course) the famous cherry blossom.

When there are these wonderful seasons to travel to Japan, why choose to come in the bitter depths of winter? Well, I’ll let you in on a secret: winter is actually the best time to travel to Japan.

Shibuya in the snow

Shibuya in the snow

OK – so the claim isn’t unqualified. Winter in Japan has its attendant inconveniences, just like any other season. For instance, on the day my family arrived in Tokyo in February for their winter Japan holiday, it was the heaviest snowstorm the city had seen for fifty years (which is just typical). If you can’t put up with cold weather, the chances are that winter in Japan is not for you. But if you’re anything like me, the following reasons will be more than enough to persuade you that winter in Japan is the best season of all.

 

1) There are no crowds

It is a fact universally acknowledged that in Japan, there are crowds. Lots of them. It’s part of the charm of the experience: Tokyo’s Shibuya scramble crossing wouldn’t be quite the same without the swarms of pedestrians, and would the cherry blossom be as enjoyable without the festive atmosphere and parties gathered beneath the trees?

But if you are allergic to queues and the thought of a squashed subway carriage sends you running for the hills, consider travelling in the winter. Throughout the colder months you will find many of the country’s most iconic sights almost completely deserted – and none the worse for being wreathed in snow or touched with a hint of frost.

Kinkaku-ji's Golden Pavilion is at its best in the snow, as we found in Kyoto.

Kinkaku-ji’s Golden Pavilion is at its best in the snow, as we found in Kyoto.

A dusting of snow on Mount Koya added to the eerie atmosphere of  Okunoin Cemetery.

A dusting of snow on Mount Koya added to the eerie atmosphere of Okunoin Cemetery.

 

2) Snowsports

Japan is over 70% mountainous, boasts over 500 ski resorts and receives some of the world’s most reliable snowfall thanks to icy winds blowing in across the sea from Siberia. All this considered, it’s pretty much the most epic snowsports location in the universe.

Japan’s ski resorts go from the absolutely minuscule to the world-class, with incredibly long, sweeping runs and superb powder snow. Having hosted the Winter Olympics in 1972 and 1998 and the Asian Winter games numerous times – and Japan being Japan – ski resort infrastructure and hospitality is generally top-notch – with après-ski to rival anywhere in the world.

Enjoying the slopes in Hakuba ski resort in Nagano Prefecture for New Year 2014

The author enjoying the slopes in Hakuba ski resort in Nagano Prefecture for New Year 2014

View over Hakuba, one of the locations for the 1998 Winter Olympics

The view over Hakuba on the first day of 2014. Hakuba was one of the locations for the 1998 Winter Olympics.

Lots of Japanese people go skiing at the weekend, so it’s super easy to incorporate a day of skiing into a winter itinerary – but I recommend a week or more!

 

3) Snow monkeys

No winter trip to Japan would be complete without a visit to the hot spring-bathing snow monkeys of Yudanaka, in the mountains of Nagano Prefecture.

Monkeys in the hot spring at Jigokudani Monkey Park

Monkeys in the hot spring at Jigokudani Monkey Park, Feb 2014

Yudanaka is a tiny, quaint hot spring town with some lovely traditional inns and plenty of onsen hot spring baths for the chilly traveller to warm up in. It is about an hour’s walk along icy, wooded paths from the town to Jigokudani monkey park, but when you finally arrive you’re rewarded with a flock (gaggle? what’s the collective noun for monkeys?) incredibly cute Japanese macaques hanging out in their hot spring and even throwing the odd snowball or two.

A baby Japanese macaque at Yudanaka's Jigokudani Monkey Park

A baby Japanese macaque at Yudanaka’s Jigokudani Monkey Park.

 

4) Warm sake

When there’s snow on the ground and you’re huddled inside your traditional ryokan inn or an izakaya pub, what better excuse to order a bottle of hot sake to warm the cockles of your heart?

Sake is Japan’s native rice wine (known as nihonshu in Japanese), and comes in a huge variety of types and qualities. It can be served warm or cold, and there’s nothing better than coming in after a long day in the cold for a lovely warming brew (or two, or three, or four).

Warm sake poured from a ceramic bottle - designed to keep the liquid warm for the longest amount of time.

Warm sake poured from a ceramic bottle – designed to keep the liquid warm for the longest amount of time.

 

5) Onsen hot spring baths

It doesn’t have to be chilly to enjoy a nice soak in a hot spring, but in my opinion there’s simply nothing like sinking into a lovely, steamy rotenburo (outdoor bath) when there are snowflakes falling all around you.

Hot springs (or onsen as they are known in Japanese) are an integral part of Japanese culture, and there are resorts dedicated to onsen bathing up and down the country – ranging from traditional cedar-panelled bathhouses to huge, themed hot spring complexes where you can bathe in red wine or milk and honey.

The onsen hot spring bath at Jinpyokaku ryokan in Yudanaka.

The onsen hot spring bath at Jinpyokaku ryokan in Yudanaka.

Watch this space for a post on Japan’s most magical onsen baths!

 

6) Kotatsu

Japan gets bloody cold in the winter, but the Japanese have come up with a great solution: the kotatsu.

A kotatsu is a low table fringed with a thick quilt with a heater underneath the top. The idea is that you sit cross-legged with the quilt over your knees to warm up your toesicles – but they are also great for napping underneath! In winter you’ll find kotatsu in most traditional Japanese-style inns, and some bars will even have them outside so you can combine 4) and 6) whilst watching the world go by!

Kotatsu at Jinpyokaku ryokan inn, Yudanaka

Kotatsu at Jinpyokaku ryokan inn, Yudanaka

 

7) Sapporo Yuki Matsuri 

If you are in the habit of reading the InsideJapan blog, you’ll know that festivals abound in Japan. One of the most impressive of all takes place in Sapporo, capital city of the comparatively little-visited northern island of Hokkaido.

The Sapporo Yuki Matsuri, or snow festival, is a winter celebration of epic proportions. For a few days every year, the streets and open spaces of the city are filled with giant snow and ice sculptures up to 20 metres tall and 30 metres wide, with toboggan runs, games, ice bars and all sorts of fun for all ages to join in. If you’ve ever fancied seeing a giant replica of the pyramids of Giza in snow, this is the festival for you.

YM2

YM3

YM4

Please note that this festival is very popular (because it’s very awesome), so you’ll need to book accommodation in Sapporo well in advance.

 

8) Red-crowned cranes

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If you’re in Hokkaido for the Yuki Matsuri, why not make your way to Tsurui to witness one of Japan’s most enchanting natural events? Every winter Japan’s red-crowned crane population congregates in Tsurui to mate, performing intricate and seemingly choreographed mating dances together. It’s an amazing sight, and you can be privy to it at the Tsurui-Ito Tancho Sanctuary.

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Mating dance of the red-crowned crane at Tsurui crane reserve, Hokkaido.

 

9) Illuminations

In Japan, where the national love of festivals is surpassed only by the love of lighting stuff up, illuminations are another winter must-see. The Halloween decorations are barely down before every city centre in Japan is suddenly flooded with thousands of twinkling fairy lights. Throughout the season my walk home from work through Nagoya was a winter wonderland, and attending illuminations is a favourite romantic pastime for loved-up Japanese couples.

There are some pretty spectacular illuminations throughout Japan in the winter, so if you’re planning a trip there’s bound to be something awesome going on near you. In Tokyo you should head to Tokyo Midtown to see the ‘starlight garden’; in Kanagawa you can visit the Kanto region’s largest light show at the Sagamiko Resort Pleasure Forest; and for the biggest show in all Japan, make your way to Mie Prefecture for the Nabana no Sato Winter Illumination, which boasts around 7 million LED bulbs.

Illuminations at Mie Prefecture's Nabana no Sato

Illuminations at Mie Prefecture’s Nabana no Sato

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10) Shirakawago

A preserved, traditional village in the Japanese Alps that was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1995 for its wonderful collection of original thatched farmhouses, Shirakawago is a superb place to visit at any time of year – but it’s particularly spectacular in the winter.

The farmhouses are called gassho zukuri, or ‘praying hands’ because of the steep pitch of their roofs – designed to cope with the heavy snowfall in this alpine region. If you decide to visit, I highly recommend arranging to spend the night at one of these farmhouses (some of which have been converted into traditional inns) for a totally unique experience that you won’t find anywhere else!

A gassho zukuri farmhouse

A gassho zukuri farmhouse

And, of course, you can’t leave without seeing the view from the observation point above the village. On certain days in January and February each year (click here for this year’s dates) the village is illuminated (see, I told you they like lighting stuff up), creating one of Japan’s most picturesque winter scenes.

Shirakawago illuminated in the winter

Shirakawago illuminated in the winter

 

11) You can actually see Mount Fuji

This article was going to be called ’10 reasons to visit Japan in the winter’ – but then I went and thought of another one!

Now, I’m going to have to put my hands up and confess, I have never been blessed with a glimpse of Fuji-san. Not from the pirate ship across Lake Ashi, not from the plane, not from the bullet train – nada. The fact is, Mount Fuji may be a Japanese icon, but she is also notoriously shy – hiding her face behind clouds and haze for most of the year.

If you want the best chance of seeing Fuji-san, guess what? You have to go in the winter!

Fuji looking her finest with clear winter skies

Fuji looking her finest against clear winter skies

InsideJapan Tours organised my family’s fantastic winter holiday to Japan in February, and can organise any (or all) of the items on this list. (Well, we can’t guarantee a sighting of Mount Fuji, so anything apart from that). Get in touch to find out how you can visit snow monkeys, sweep down ski slopes, soak in a hot spring and snuggle up under a kotatsu this winter!

Ninja vs. Samurai

Two of the most evocative images of historical Japan are the ninja and the samurai. We’ve all heard of them, but what do you actually know about these famous historical assassins and warriors?

It’s time for the epic showdown of the ninja and the samurai!

ninja vs samurai

 

First of all, who were they?

Samurai 侍 (usually called “bushi” or “buke” in Japanese) were the military nobility of Japan. They lived during a time when the Emperor of Japan was little more than a ceremonial figure, and the country was actually ruled by a shogun, or military general.

The shogun presided over a bunch of powerful clans, called daimyo, each of which controlled its own small portion of the country and hired samurai to act as its guards and warriors.

hokusai samurai

Samurai were not only fierce warriors but followed strict codes of honour and combat. During the long peace of the Edo Period (1603 – 1868), samurai gradually lost their military function and expanded their roles courtiers, bureaucrats and administrators. The samurai class was eventually abolished in the Meiji Reforms of the 19th century, after enjoying hundreds of years of power and influence.

There is no evidence that ninjas favoured pizza over any other foodstuff

There is no evidence that ninjas favoured pizza over any other foodstuff

Ninja 忍者 (known as “shinobi”忍び in Japan) were essentially ye olde equivalent of secret agents, whose role involved espionage, sabotage, infiltration and assassination. Where the samurai adhered obdurately to their principles, the ninja were a very different story, using covert means to achieve their ends. Just like the samurai, they were employed by powerful clans to do their dirty work.

beverley hilss

Not much about them is known for certain, but what we do know is that the modern-day image of a ninja is a far cry from the historical reality – as Kotaku explains in this interesting blog post. Rather, our current conception of the ninja has been reinforced over time – not only by western movies like American Ninja, but also by Japanese media and folklore.

 

What did they look like?

Clue: not this

Clue: not like this

All this sounds exciting, but as Matt Alt points out in his book Ninja Attack: True Tales of Assassins, Samurai and Outlaws, being a ninja was probably much more about gathering information than assassinating people in the dead of night. Most often, ninja would be dressed inconspicuously – as farmers or priests for example – so that they could act as scouts and observe the doings of the enemy without being rumbled. Come to think of it, the idea of some guy running about the place dressed in black does seem kind of conspicuous…

Perhaps the first image of the stereotypical "ninja"

Perhaps the first image of the stereotypical “ninja”

We have the painter Hokusai to thank for the first ever image of the ninja dressed all in black, which may have been based on the garb of stage hands in the Japanese theatre – who wore dark colours so as not to be seen on set.

Sadly, real ninja probably looked more like this.

Sadly, real ninja probably looked more like this.

…or actually, they currently look like this 63 year old engineer, recently touted as one of Japan’s ‘last Ninja’ …

Samurai, on the other hand, looked awesome and imposing in their badass armour, which grew to have a ceremonial as well as protective function as the role of the samurai changed. The fact that samurai no longer had to charge into battle at a moment’s notice during the Edo Period meant that some armour became exaggerated, even to the point of being a little ridiculous – like this fine set, belonging to the Ii clan of Hikone.

Not the most practical of headgear

Not the most practical of headgear

 

When were they around?

The concept of the samurai began to emerge during around the mid-Heian Period (794 – 1185). Sneaky ninja predecessors probably existed as far back as the late Heian Period too, but the shinobi as a specially trained group of mercenaries from the villages of Iga and Koga only appeared in the fifteenth century, making them a good five hundred years younger than the samurai.

The ninja, born out of a demand for fighters who were willing to do dishonourable deeds and reliant for their trade on political unrest and war, faded into obscurity after the unification of Japan in the seventeenth century. The samurai, meanwhile, adapted their role in society and endured much longer.

 

What was their philosophy?

The rules by which the samurai governed their lives are known as Bushido – which is basically the Japanese version of chivalry. This code of honour, influenced by Confucianism, Shinto and Zen Buddhism, introduced an element of wisdom and peace to the violent life of the samurai.

old time samurai

To sum it up: the seven virtues of Bushido are rectitude (or righteousness), courage, benevolence, respect, honesty, honour and loyalty. Mastery of the martial arts and a frugal lifestyle were also highly important to the samurai, and they endeavoured to follow all these precepts to the letter in every aspect of their lives. Honestly, nothing could be more different from the underhand dealings of the ninja.

Ninja philosophy (if you can call “not giving a fraction of a shit” a philosophy) had its roots in Chinese military philosophy and was focussed much less on values and much more on kicking butt.

There are three main texts from which we get most of our knowledge of ninja, called the Ninpiden (1655), the Bansenshukai (1675) and the Shoninki (1681). These address things like how to disguise oneself, how to break into houses and gather information, how to lay false trails, and some observations on human nature and emotions.

sundial

Cats’ eye sundial

Just some of the awesome tactics that ninja are reported to have used are telling the time by observing the dilation of cats’ pupils, and carrying around a box of crickets with them to disguise their footsteps. Whether these are actually true is anyone’s guess.

 

What kind of weapons did they use?

uma

Samurai pretty much relied on their swords for weaponry. These ranged from the katana (long sword) to the wakizashi (short sword) and the tanto (dagger). Sometimes they also used a kama (a sickle-like weapon), but without a doubt the most awesome samurai weapon is the WAR FAN.

Antique tessen, c. 1800-1850, made of iron, bamboo and lacquer

Antique tessen, c. 1800-1850, made of iron, bamboo and lacquer

Thought fans were just for the ladies? Well, you were wrong. A tessen was a folding fan with outer spokes made of pointy iron, or sometimes a solid club made to look like a fan. The tessen could be used for attacks, fending off arrows and darts, as a throwing weapon and even (rather amusingly) as a swimming aid. Crafty.

"If only I had my tessen"

“If only I had my tessen”

Because ninja relied on ambush and unorthodox tactics whereas samurai generally fought honourably (face-to-face), ninja could use a much greater variety of weapons.

Whilst ninja probably used swords too, they also used things like red pepper or iron filings to temporarily blind enemies; a scary-looking chain and sickle contraption called a kusarigama; farming tools that could be easily disguised as, well, gardening tools; darts, spikes, knives, shuriken throwing stars, bows, smoke bombs, poison, cane swords, acid-spurting tubes (apparently) and even a variety of explosives. Besides these they carried tools such as grappling hooks, chisels, hammers, drills, picks and saws (all of which could also be used as weapons), and inflatable skins with breathing tubes to allow them to stay underwater for extended periods of time.

DCF 1.0

Obviously they didn’t carry all this at the same time – the Bansenshukai, one of the ninja texts, states that “a successful ninja is one who uses but one tool for multiple tasks”

 

So who would have won in a fight?

In an honourable fight? Maybe the samurai would have had a chance. But considering the huge array of tricks up ninja sleeves (plus purported superhuman abilities such as invisibility, shapeshifting, walking on water, the summoning of animals and control over the elements – which were probably true, let’s face it), the ninja would probably have got him in the end.

Well, we all know what happens to men with honour - don't we?

Well, we all know what happens to men with honour – don’t we?

Japanese Street Fashion

It’s Tokyo Fashion Week this week (Oct 16-22), so with all the top names in the biz with their eyes on the Japanese capital, here is a little something to help them along…

There is a saying in Japan that goes: “Deru kui wa utareru” – or “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.” In other words, conformity is key.

This saying is often trotted out by those wishing to denigrate Japan for its perceived intolerance of individuality. Whilst there is some truth to the old adage (no smoke without fire, after all!), Japan today is famous for precisely the opposite, and nowhere are the Japanese more expressive than in the weird and wonderful fashions to be found on the city streets.

The following is a brief guide to some of the wackiest trends to have graced the streets of Tokyo, Osaka, and indeed any of Japan’s urban centres. Whilst most of these trends had their heyday in the 1990s, their influence can still be seen in the eclectic fashion choices of today’s youngsters – especially in the Harajuku area of Tokyo. By the way – these aren’t the twee, manufactured “Harajuku girls” of Gwen Stefani’s dubious 2004 album, and they are certainly not those of Avril Lavigne’s recent (and atrocious) “Hello Kitty” – which frankly has no redeeming features (watch it here at your own peril). These are the genuine article – so next time you’re in Tokyo bring this guide along and play street fashion safari!

1. Lolita

Lolita is perhaps the most recognisable of Japanese street fashion trends – unsurprisingly since it has been around for years now. The trend began way back in the 1970s when Japanese brands such as Pink House, Milk and Angelic Pretty started selling flouncy skirts, corsets and bonnets and basically sticking frills, lace and bows on anything and everything. You can still spot Lolita girls out and about in 2014 – just head down to Harajuku in Tokyo to be in with a chance of a sighting!

Lolita fashion

Lolita fashion

Within the Lolita trend are many sub-trends encompassing different styles of Lolita – from the self-explanatory Gothic Lolita (lots of black, heavy on the Victorian vibe); Sweet Lolita (as childlike as possible – think bows, pastel colours and stuffed animals); and even Kodona, a type of masculine Lolita style influenced by Victorian boys’ clothing.

Gothic Lolita

Gothic Lolita

Sweet Lolita

Sweet Lolita

Lolita is one of the more “kawaii” trends in Japanese fashion. “Kawaii” essentially means “cute,” but due to the movement’s immense popularity and all-pervading presence in Japanese culture it really deserves its own post!

2. Kogal

“Kogal” simply means “high school girl” in Japanese, and this is also a trend that will probably be familiar to most foreigners. Adherents of this style typically wear very short skirts and baggy socks reminiscent of Japanese school uniforms, spend a lot of time in purikura photo booths with their friends and refer to themselves as “gyaru,” simply meaning “gals.” The Kogal style began to emerge in the 1970s, peaking in the late nineties before subsiding into relative obscurity.

gyaru

3. Ganguro

Centring around the Shibuya and Ikebukuro districts of Tokyo, Ganguro style became popular in the mid-nineties before fading out of favour by the time the new millennium swung round. The look is characterised by a dark tan, white eye make-up with heavy black mascara, and bleached blonde hair. It has been speculated that Ganguro style evolved in order to deter sexual harassment on public transport by being purposefully ugly, or even as a form of revenge against the constraints of traditional Japanese society.

Buriteri, a famous Ganguro girl frequently featured in egg magazine in the nineties

Buriteri, a famous Ganguro girl frequently featured in egg magazine in the nineties. Her name comes from the word for a very dark soy sauce!

The Yamanba and Manba styles developed as offshoots from Ganguro and are characterised by even more extreme make-up, even darker skin and neon-coloured clothing and hair. In Japanese, “yamanba” literally means “mountain hag”! These styles became popular after Ganguro, so you may still spot a Manba or her male equivalent (known as Centre Guys) in Tokyo today!

Manba girl

Manba girl

Center Guy

Center Guy

4. Cosplay

Cosplay is strictly more of a hobby than a fashion trend, and it has spread from Japan to become popular with youths and comic book convention attendees worldwide. Cosplay is short for “costume play” and simply means dressing up as a character from a video game, comic book, movie or cartoon. The movement became popular in the early nineties and is alive and kicking today – you only need to visit one of Akihabara’s Cosplay restaurants to see the proof for yourself.

Japanese_Cosplay1

5. Decora

For fans of Decora style, more is most definitely more. Decora originated in the late 1990s and is still one of the more common styles to be found in areas like Harajuku today. Youngsters dressed in Decora style resemble walking confections, with plastic trinkets, cute furry toys, brightly-coloured hair clips, patterned face masks and every imaginable accessory piled on top of various layers of clothing.

Decora style

Decora style

decora

Here at InsideJapan, we do not proclaim to be fashion know-it-alls, but we can help people who do know their stuff to include a fashion element to their trip. We know where the cool kids hang out in Tokyo, we can get you doing some Yuzen-silk dyeing in Kanazawa or get you wearing a Kimono at a traditional Kimono manufacturer in Kyoto and our private guides can take you to the best shops for the latest fashion insight. If you want something more fashion specific, then we can look into it….we can do just about anything in Japan. All you have to do is ask.

Tokyo – Next Door and a World Away

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Don’t let the fact that few have heard of Nokogiriyama, and even fewer visited, fool you into thinking “Saw Mountain” isn’t an excellent option for a day trip from the Tokyo area.

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Located across Tokyo Bay on the Bōsō Peninsula (Chiba Prefecture), a little over an hour from Yokohama and closer to two from Tokyo, this mountain derives its name from its resemblance to a Japanese woodworking saw, or nokogiri. It used to be a stone quarry during the Edo period, and the excavation of rock is partly responsible for giving the mountain its unique appearance.

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The main attraction is Nihon-ji, a Buddhist temple that traces its history back to the Nara period, about 1,300 years ago. This is where you’ll find Japan’s largest stone Buddha, which used to be the largest figure of Buddha anywhere in Japan until the completion of Aomori’s bronze statue in 1984. Entrance is ¥600, and you’ll also receive an English map and description of the sprawling temple grounds.

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The Hyakushaku Kannon is an impressive relief of Kannon, a bodhisattva and goddess of mercy, carved directly into a quarry wall. Hyaku means one-hundred, and shaku is a traditional unit of measure in Japan (and East Asia, although not uniform), the average length between nodes on bamboo, or approximately one foot.

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The 1,500 Arhats are smaller statues of spirits or beings that have attained nirvana. They were chiseled from special stones sent by sea from Izu. The enormous task took master artisan Jingorō Eirei Ōno and his 27 apprentices 19 years to complete. Unfortunately, many of the masterpieces were destroyed in the anti-Buddhist movement of the Meiji period, but there are current efforts to restore them to their former glory. Still, among Buddhists, Mt. Nokogiri is widely regarded as one of the holiest mountains in the Kantō area; some even say the world, though I suspect they have a Bōsō bias.

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The views from the cliff faces out over the bay are breathtaking, and you could easily spend a couple of hours visiting the different sights of Nihon-ji.

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Standard footwear is adequate, but do be aware that there are many steps and you may be a little short of breath if you’re not used to hiking or climbing many stairs.

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You might be surprised to learn that the stone statue of Buddha in Nihon-ji is nearly twice the size of the bronze statue in Tōdai-ji, Nara.

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If you’ve made an early start and have a few extra hours after your visit to Nokogiriyama, you might want to take a trip a little further down the peninsula to the beach town of Tateyama, which has a claim to fame as the primary filming location of a popular TV show called “Beach Boys”. From Hamakanaya Station, take the JR Uchibo Line 25 minutes south to Tateyama Station (¥410 each way, departures roughly every half hour).

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From Tokyo, there are two ways to Nokogiriyama. One is by train, with a transfer at either Chiba or Soga stations to the JR Uchibo line, disembark at Hamakanaya Station (2 hours, ¥1,940 each way). The other is by a train and ferry combo. Take the Keikyu line to Keikyu Kurihama station (72 min, ¥960 each way), board a bus at stop number 2 for the Tokyo Wan Ferry port (10 minutes, ¥200), and board the ferry to Kanaya (40 minutes, 720 one-way, ¥1,320 return).

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If you like variety, you might like to do the trip to Nokogiriyama in a big circle, taking the ferry one-way and train the other. If you’re planning a visit from Yokohama or Kamakura, it takes even less time, but the ferry is really the best option. The ferry leaves roughly once an hour, and the schedule can be found here (departures from Kurihama port are on the left, and from Kanaya port on the right):

Kurihama Ferry 2
For those arriving at JR Kurihama Station (instead of Keikyu Kurihama station mentioned above), take the bus from stop number 5 (12 minutes, ¥200). For groups of 4, a taxi is the same fare as a bus and leaves on your schedule.

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From either Kanaya ferry port or JR Hamakanaya station, it is about a ten-minute walk to the ropeway (¥500 one-way, ¥930 return), which will take you to the entrance of Nihon-ji and departs every ten minutes. There are toilets and refreshments available at both ends of the ropeway, as well as at the big Buddha.

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Again, for those who appreciate history or nature, this makes for a great day trip from the main conurbation of Tokyo. With its unique atmosphere and spectacle, and a remoteness that belies its proximity to the city, it will likely leave you feeling as if you’ve just had a dream, as it did me.

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InsideJapan and the Japanese Ministry of Environment

Kirishima Kinkowan National Park

Kirishima Kinkowan National Park is famous for it’s beautiful and otherworldly volcanic scenery.

As a representative of InsideJapan Tours, I’ve been working with the Japanese Ministry of Environment to help them promote overseas tourism in their National Parks. Together with loads of great local people, several of us longtime expat foreigners have been traveling around to various National Parks in Japan to see just what’s on offer. As with my visit to Nikko National Park a few weeks ago, I am beginning to realize that even in places I’ve been to multiple times before, there is still so much more to see.

Friendly people

As is so often the case in Japan, we were met by friendly people every step of the way.

Because InsideJapan Tours believes in getting travelers beneath the surface of Japan when they visit, I’m always happy when I can help find new ways to make that vision become reality. And it’s finding lesser visited destinations like this one that allows one to see the Japan of the past and just what it is that makes the country so special. This week I went to Kirishima-Kinkowan National Park with an amazingly talented group of individuals including the great photographer Everett Brown, the publisher of the fantastic Japanese language travel magazine Kyushu no Mura, the supremely talented Brad Towle – director of the Tanabe City Kumano Tourism Bureau, and the fine folks from Umari – one of the coolest operations in Japan that I know of.

Romance and water

Thinking of honeymooning in Japan? How about following the trail of the very first honeymoon couple in Japan. The famous samurai Sakamoto Ryoma came here after his wedding, a long time before he became an instrumental figure in overthrowing the government.

Edo station

This little old train station hasn’t changed much over the years. There’s no ticket machine and there’s no one here to check your ticket even if you had one. But what really makes it special is that a local family sells a bento here with food that is reminiscent of what people were eating 100 years ago. It has been voted the best bento in Kyushu but I will go on the record as saying it is the best bento I’ve had anywhere in Japan!

onsen

At almost every onsen town in Japan you will hear stories about why that onsen is better than onsens in other parts of the country, but if you come to this part of Kagoshima you will find so many varieties of hot spring that there are local people who can recommend you an onsen depending on exactly what ails you. I opted for the hangover onsen.

Land  of the Gods

In Japanese mythology, this area is where it all begins. The true land of the gods. While visiting some of Kirishima’s famous shrines I was struck not only by the elegant Shinto architecture but especially by the beautiful surroundings. Each shrine we visited was more secluded than the last and all of them were beautifully interwoven with the island’s vast natural surroundings.

Ryokan

If you have yet to experience Japanese hospitality, you are in for a treat! Scenes at traditional ryokans – Japanese inns – like this one turn the everyday into the extraordinary.

Pure water

At cleansing stations near the entrance to most shrines and temples in Japan you will find intricately crafted dragons with crystal clear water pouring from their ferocious looking mouths, but I think I like this home made version almost as much.

Food

A twist on traditional Japanese incense, the tea placed on top of this small porcelain lamp gave off just the slightest perfume. The owner of the soba restaurant where I found this explained to me that although traditional incense can overpower the taste of the food, the smell of green tea compliments their dishes. Wonderful!

134 year old direction

What I love best about this 134 year old direction marker is that the carvers chose a hand with its pointer finger extended rather than a simpler arrow to direct travelers (like myself) in the right direction.

Shrines and temples

This shrine was on a big hillside overlooking a couple of mist covered volcanos and a big blue lake. Completely deserted, we took our time to enjoy it’s every last detail.

Duck!

These little ducks acted like they were our best friends… until they realized we didn’t have any food. ;)

Thinkers stream

Just minutes before returning to the airport, Everett and I were looking at a beautiful little stream that was running in between peoples’ houses. At first we thought it was just a regular river born of rain coming down from the surrounding mountains but a local took us up to its source (pictured here) and we learned that it is actually a spring. We could literally see the water gushing up from out of the ground. Everett said it best, “heaven on earth”!

Japan: Country of Diversity?

The idea of Japan as an ethnically and culturally homogenous country is a pervasive one, both in Japan and across the world. For foreigners, the idea of Japan as a homogenous country is pretty ingrained – and for most Japanese (as any expat in Japan will tell you), the sight of a person of non-Asian descent speaking Japanese is still cause for incredulity. Obviously, this doesn’t exactly scream diversity!

(As a side note – this experience also gets old pretty quickly for the tiny minority of non-Asian native Japanese speakers living in Japan. Watch some of Ken Tanaka’s videos for a funny perspective on what it’s like to be a “Kei Nihon-jin” – someone who was born and raised in Japan but is not ethnically Japanese)

There is also a political dimension to the myth of Japan’s homogeneity: it fosters a sense of national identity, contributing to the strong Japanese sense of cohesion. For this reason the Japanese government has traditionally endorsed the misconception. A sense of national unity does have important benefits, but it also has the effect of forming a barrier against the world – keeping the outsiders out and the insiders in.

In reality, of course, what constitutes “outsiders” and “insiders” isn’t as simple as you might expect! Japan is more ethnically diverse than most of us realise. Although ethnic minorities in Japan have historically received little to no recognition and have even been actively suppressed – things have changed considerably, and today efforts are being made to preserve and rehabilitate the unique cultures of Japan’s minority groups.

Ainu

The Ainu are the indigenous people of northern Japan and have a culture, language and religion entirely distinct from that of Japan as we know it. During the Meiji Restoration, when Hokkaido was officially incorporated into Japan, Ainu land was confiscated, their language was banned and their cultural and religious practices curtailed. In 1899, they were officially labelled “former aborigines” and granted Japanese citizenship, forcibly assimilating them into the general population in a process that overall took less than fifty years.

Ainu

From the time of Japan’s unification until 1997, the Japanese government’s official position was that there were no ethnic minorities in Japan – and it took until 2008 for the Ainu to gain official recognition as a minority group. They remain Japan’s only recognised ethnic minority. At this time, the Japanese government also released a statement acknowledging the fact of the Ainu people’s subjugation during the Japanese “modernisation” and expansion.

Ainu family in 1906

Ainu family in 1906

Today there are very few people of pure Ainu descent left in Japan, but some citizens with Ainu heritage have made attempts to rehabilitate aspects of their culture, traditions and music. One such example is Oki, a musician of mixed Ainu and Japanese descent who plays the tonkori – a traditional Ainu instrument – in the Oki Dub Ainu Band.

Although the damage to Ainu culture can never fully be repaired, Ainu populations in cities across Japan have established political and cultural communities, and there are now institutions whose aim is to protect Ainu rights and heritage – such as The Foundation for Research and Promotion of Ainu Culture (FRPAC) run by the Japanese government. The Ainu political party was also founded in 2012, with the aim of realising a multicultural and multiethnic society in Japan.

Ryukyuans

The Ryukyuan people, indigenous to the islands between Taiwan and Kyushu (including modern-day Okinawa), are another sector of Japanese society with culture and traditions distinct from that of mainland Japan.

ryukyu

Preceded by three other Okinawan kingdoms, the Ryukyu Kingdom was a thriving independent dominion from the fifteenth to the nineteenth century, participating in trade with China, Southeast Asia and mainland Japan. This long history of trade meant that Ryukyuan culture developed from an extremely diverse group of influences which can be seen in its arts, crafts and architecture.

In the seventeenth century the Ryukyu Kingdom was invaded by Japan and forced into subordination, before finally being officially incorporated into Japan in 1872. More destruction followed in the twentieth century, when the former Ryukyu kingdom became the site of the devastating Battle of Okinawa, and subsequently came under American administration for nearly thirty years.

Despite this turbulent history, and despite Okinawan people having suffered widespread discrimination in twentieth century Japan, Ryukyuan culture has gone on to become something of a success story. Music, dance, art, architecture, textiles and food on the Okinawa Islands are strikingly different from that of mainland Japan, retaining their multicultural flavour and making these islands some of the richest and most diverse areas of the country.

 

Performance of "Eisa," traditional Ryukyuan dance, at Ryukyu Mura in Okinawa

Performance of “Eisa,” traditional Ryukyuan dance, at Ryukyu Mura in Okinawa

Japanese Koreans

Another significant – and problematic – ethnic group in Japan is the Korean-Japanese population, known as “Zainichi”, who are officially considered foreign residents rather than an ethnic minority. Over the course of Japan’s history, Korea has been instrumental in transmitting the culture and religion of the Asian continent to Japan, and some of Japan’s most treasured crafts were first brought to the country by Korean immigrants. It is even likely that the first Japanese people emigrated to Japan from the area now known as Korea.

Contact between Japan and Korea only became antagonistic in the twentieth century, and many of the ethnic Koreans now living in Japan are the descendants of forced labourers brought to the country after Japan’s annexation of Korea in 1910. This population is thought to number in the hundreds of thousands – perhaps even millions – and its members have often faced discrimination despite having lived in Japan for their whole lives.

Although discrimination against ethnic Koreans unfortunately still exists in Japan, through the activism of Zainichi organisations and other minority groups – including the Ainu – the social atmosphere continues to improve. A Korea-Japan friendship festival is now held each year in Tokyo and Seoul to promote better understanding between the two cultures, and Korean food and culture (particularly pop music) is enjoying a surge in popularity in Japan.

A scene from 2013's Korea-Japan Friendship Day

A scene from last year’s Korea-Japan Friendship Day

Besides the groups mentioned here, there are significant communities of ethnic Brazilians, Taiwanese and Chinese in Japan, along with others.

So there we have it!  Busting the myth of Japan’s homogeneity and celebrating its cultural minorities :)

The Tokyo Apartment Rental Game

After recently seeing the 2 years on my apartment rental agreement come to an end, I had to reengage in activity with my Tokyo Estate Agents– and oh how the memories of 2 years prior came flooding back, when my bank account was completely drained.

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The realities of life in Tokyo – rich or poor, Japanese or expat – is that there is very little space. So, while average rental costs may not exceed other great cities across the world, living space is typically very limited and you end up with very little for your hard-earned yen.

 I decided to stay put in my little ferroconcrete den for another 2 years for reasons that may become clearer as you read on…

 As in my home country of the UK, (real) estate agents in Japan are not the most popular organisations, and likewise, the image of the money-grabbing landlord holds true for many here in Tokyo, too.

So, you need a roof over your head: first the apartment hunting game. The majority of property owners wishing to rent out to tenants prefer to channel all the contractual and legal wrangling through the estate agents. Hence, pretty much any area of Tokyo will have a wealth of (wealthy) agents around the so-called Ekimae (station front) area.

 All display “great deals” in the shop window for what I call “ghost apartments” – ones which have always (coincidently?) just been rented out, when you enquire…

”But what about this one, Sir?” So, you are lured into the shop by the marketing hook and start to trawl through the dozens of rooms on offer.

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40,000 yen (4万)/ 250 pounds for a studio apartment, no deposit, no key money required – something is fishy – haunted, a murderer’s former abode, railway tracks running through it or simply disgusting? Don’t worry, its already unavailable anyway!

And when I talk of rooms, the Tokyo singleton on an average white-collar salary is often only able to afford the one room – a tiny single room studio apartment. Unlike in London, house sharing is also not an option in Japan’s capital, so your room is where you eat, sleep, watch TV, entertain… At least you have privacy, well, that is if your walls are not paper thin!

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Early afternoon in this dark 6 tatami mat room and the light needs to be on already!

Apartments are very often still measured using the old Japanese system of counting tatami mats. These traditional rush straw mats are, sadly, increasingly giving way to vinyl flooring or timber parquet, however they are still the way to gauge living space.

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A typical plan of a (large) apartment, showing the balcony on the left, even the 2 gas rings and sink in the kitchen (K) and each tatami mat in the 2main rooms(6畳)

Tokyo tatami mats (a little smaller than their equivalents in western Japan) are 1.76m x 88cm. A typically-sized main room for single occupancy is therefore a mere 6 ”Jo”, i.e. 6 mats, so pretty tight at just under 10 square metres! This one main room will often (but not always) have a small built in wardrobe, and your one source of light – hopefully sliding glass doors which give out onto a little balcony space (perhaps itself the size of a single mat). You certainly need to know where the sun is going to be when choosing – north facing is not a good way to go unless you want to live under artificial lighting whenever you are at home, day or night.

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Making the most of a balcony – fake ivy, astroturf and cactuses, along with a few herbs

Other areas in the apartment – the genkan; a tiny square area a little lower than the rest of the apartment floor, which has room to park 4 pairs of shoes orderly by the front door; a kitchenette with one or, if you are lucky 2 gas/ electric cooking rings; and a prefab, plastic bathroom where you can literally shower whilst on the toilet. Don’t expect to stretch out in the bath either – Japanese style is box like and deep.

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No need to worry about getting the bathroom floor wet!

What about heating? Typically a joint AC/heating unit is fixed on the wall, up by the ceiling – great in the summer but as rudimentary physics dictates, warm air rises, so not so perfect on cold winter nights in a country that lives on the floor!

So there you have it – otherwise no fittings, curtains, furniture, bedding, oven, fridge, TV or washing machine, (by the way – you may have to have that on your balcony!) Essentially, a box with little character and questionable insulation.

What other criteria are people looking at closely when apartment hunting? Aspects such as aspect (inevitably) – one worry being that your wonderful view, above the Tokyo cables and poles, may disappear if construction of a neighbouring building starts (some seemingly appear overnight here). You may soon find a towering, shadow-spewing edifice which extinguishes any natural light that you ever had.

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At least there is a view – even if not the finest!

Equally important – how far is the nearest overground or underground railway station on foot? The great majority of the millions of Tokyo commuters use what has to rank as one of the finest public transport systems in the world. Getting to your nearest train station is key in the dash to and from the workplace, and people are keen to reduce the commute in light of long working days. Too close though and your room will be shaking from 5am till past midnight every day of the year!

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2 train stations within walking distance – 7 or 8 minutes on foot, an ideal distance.

Another consideration – is the building a flimsy walled “apato” (often found in smaller and older apartment blocks)? The better option is modern robust, ferroconcrete “mansion” (a far from a country manor house), which is far better if you don’t want to hear the clicking of your neighbour’s chopsticks as they eat, let alone any nocturnal activity.

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The so called “designer’s mansion” – sturdy, functional and coolly expensive

Oh, and of course, there is cost to consider! In Japan, the process does not simply involve a deposit payment, your first month’s rent and you’re set. Other quite substantial costs are incurred depending on the landlord’s decision on how much reikin – (key money) to demand. This often irks the foreign tenant in Japan, as it seems to serve essentially a way of saying “thank you, almighty landlord for allowing me to pay you most of my salary for a dingy box provided with gas water and electricity for the next 2 years”. 2 months’ of deposit is quite common, and this is often non-returnable, no matter how spotless you leave a dwelling on vacating it. A guarantor company may even be required, which essentially covers your missing rent if you decide to make a run for it – another month’s rent. Oh, and of course, there is the friendly agent’s fee – take a month’s worth why don’t you?

 

So let’s break it down using a tiny apartment example to really emphasize what many single Tokyoites require to secure 6 tatami mat place, an hour by train from the (huge) central Tokyo area. Let’s assume a modest 80,000yen (500 pounds) rent per month. Initial costs to get a contract signed, may work out as expensive as follows:

 

2 month’s rent upfront

2 month’s deposit

1 month’s reikin (thank you/key money)

1 month to a guarantor company

1 month to the agent

Add in a little change for insurance payments and you are possibly heading towards a figure of 600,000 (around 4000pounds) to be paid in order to get a rental agreement signed. And remember, this is for a box of around 20 square metres, which you can do very little to – no redecorating, no car, no motorbike, maybe even no bicycles (where are you going to park it – on your bed?) no pets, no musical instruments, no life..?

I hasten to add that I have decided to sacrifice a large proportion of my salary to actually have a 2nd room to live in – an excess indeed but living out of hotel rooms for a fair part of the year, my need for more than one unit within which to exist is very important for my sanity. The sacrifice is well worth it and having just paid my friendly agent an extra month’s rent to re-sign the contract for another 2 years, I won’t be moving for a while.

 

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Yes, this was the money I handed over to the estate agent in order to simply secure a rental agreement!

Sacrifices, sacrifices, but of course, I have all the attractions of one of the most bedazzling cities on the planet on my doorstep. That’s another story, but I say, who needs space when you have Tokyo?!

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